Sails & Winds

Michael Eaude’s history of Valencia reveals much about the Spanish state’s hard line against aspirations for independence or simply greater autonomy, argues Chris Bambery

Michael Eaude, Sails and Winds: A Cultural History of Valencia (Signal Books 2019), 388pp.

Like the Balkans, the Iberian Peninsula never underwent a bourgeois revolution. Consequently, revolutionaries living within the Spanish state championed, in the first four decades of the last century, a Socialist Federation, exactly as their comrades in the Balkans did. This position was dumped by the Socialists and Communists as part of the transition from the Franco dictatorship to parliamentary democracy, in large part to appease the army which saw itself as the defender of the unity of the Spanish state. 

That shift today means that the Spanish Socialist Party, which is currently in office, along with much of the radical left, is hostile to Catalan self-determination and backs the repression being doled out to the independence movement there. Sometimes this is explained because of opposition to nationalism in all its forms, though this rather ignores the horrors inflicted by specifically Spanish nationalism, not least under Franco.

Michael Eaude has written an outstanding cultural history of Catalonia. Now he turns his hand to that of the region of Valencia, stretching from the River Ebro boundary with Catalonia to south of Alicant. Readers may have just presumed I have made a spelling mistake because we know the city to which millions fly to access the Costa Blanca as Alicante. But that’s its Spanish name. It’s Alicant because that’s what it is in Catalan, the language spoken traditionally in the Valencia region. Eaude explains it is Catalan spoken in the style of Valencia just as English can be spoken in the style of Jamaica or the USA.

In this thoroughly engaging book, he points out that in the art gallery in Xativa the portrait of King Felipe V hangs upside down. That is because in 1707 his troops took the city, burning it to the ground and expelling its people. The people of Valencia, like those of Catalonia, opposed a French Bourbon taking the Spanish throne. They knew a grandson of the Sun King Louis XIV of France, would seek to build a centralised kingdom abolishing their traditional autonomy. They backed an Austrian claimant to the throne, but in the European war known as the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-14), they were eventually ditched by their Austrian and British allies (after the Brits had secured Gibraltar) and were defeated.

Felipe V set out to destroy not just the autonomy of Valencia and Catalonia but its shared language and their cultures. The Bourbons still sit on the throne and have learnt nothing and forgotten nothing. Running through this book is a simple truth: ‘The Spanish state’s history has always understood unity as the suppression of diversity, never as unity by choice, negotiation or agreement’ (p.32). The UK is not a union of equals, but the Spanish state is in a separate league.

The ghost in the room is of course Franco and his dictatorship. Eaude repeatedly returns to the horrors of Francoist rule and repression from the unmarked graves of those executed to the vicious attempt to build a Castilian/Spanish state in which there is no room for others.

Rise of a persecuting state

That is the rub. The Kingdom of Spain was born of the destruction of Muslim Grenada, the last redoubt of Al Andalus, the rich, Muslim caliphate which once stretched from Gibraltar to the Pyrenees. Its capture in 1492 was followed by an order that all Muslims and Jews (Jews lived in relative peace in Muslim lands unlike Christendom) convert or leave. For those who converted, the Inquisition was created to check they were drinking wine, eating pork and not washing or changing their clothes too often!

Spain was created on the basis of the exclusion of others, on extreme Catholicism and, across the Atlantic, a virtual genocide after Columbus was funded to sail to China and bumped into the ‘New’ World. This was the Spain Franco idolised.

Today you might not be aware that the Valencia Region is not fully part of Spain. After 1707 it was more structured into Spain than was Catalonia. Valencia and Alicant were the nearest Mediterranean ports to Madrid and regarded as safer than Barcelona. The local upper classes were not treated with the same cold shoulder as the Catalan bankers and industrialists, even though they bent the knee. Accordingly, the region did not experience the cultural renaissance that consequently swept Catalonia in the second half of the nineteenth century. That meant many key Valencian cultural figures looked north to Catalonia.

Post Franco, the issue of regional autonomy was much more fraught too. The right opposed it, violently, unleashing fascist gangs. Thus, what was won, and it was won as elsewhere, something people forget about the Transition, was weaker than in Catalonia, particularly in education and the media. The result is that the language is much more restricted and under threat.

For much of the recent years, the region was ruled by the right-wing Popular Party, a byword for corruption which reached high-rise heights in Valencia; I use that term advisedly. Huge ‘prestige’ projects involving new art galleries, aquariums, science museums and exhibition halls were built with millions disappearing into the pockets of the PP and consequently not clearing a profit. A massive corruption case centred in Valencia would bring down the PP government last year. The PP regional administration was violently anti-Catalan and against any idea that the region was not completely part of Spain.

This is a wonderful book which I so enjoyed. Michael is an old comrade, and this is a book shaped by Marxism, not least in its intelligent dealings with the national question. I have no hesitation in saying to read it.

Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.